THE PROM delivers heartfelt musical theater comedy for musical theater lovers. With plenty of theater in-jokes, hijinks, big ensemble dance numbers, and a mix of funny and saccharine, composer Matthew Sklar, lyricist Chad Beguelin, and co-book writers Beguelin and Bob Martin understand the formula for an entertaining modern musical. While THE PROM hard-core wears its heart on its sleeve, it’s also so fun. THE PROM isn’t afraid to embrace its identity as a “feel-good” musical, but there’s enough originality and winks at the audience in the story to counteract the moments that veer towards maudlin. It’s the kind of big, jazzy musical theater joy that I’ve so missed, and thus, this tour has landed in Chicago at just the right time.
THE PROM opens with vapid, narcissistic Broadway actors Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan) and Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel) at the opening night party of their ill-fated new bio musical about Eleanor Roosevelt (and yes, it includes a hip hop number). When THE NEW YORK TIMES theater critic files a review that absolutely eviscerates the show, Dee Dee and Barry decide they must come up with a scheme to maintain relevance and come out on top. The solution? Become celebrity activists. Dee Dee and Barry gather up their friends Angie (Emily Borromeo), exhausted after twenty years in the chorus of CHICAGO, and Trent Oliver (Bud Weber), a waiter between acting gigs who peppers every conversation with mentions of his time at Julliard, and set out to find a cause. They settle on traveling to Edgewater, Indiana, where they will help 17-year-old Emma, who wants nothing more than to take her girlfriend to prom—despite the outrage of PTA head Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria) and other town parents, and at the scorn of her classmates.
The four celebrity activists, however, have some imaginative and playful numbers. When the quartet arrives in Edgewater, Dee Dee announces her presence with the inflated “It’s Not About Me.” Balan makes the number a real self-centered show. And even though Dee Dee is incessantly selfish, Balan still finds a way to make her sympathetic—particularly after she catches the eye of high school principal Mr. Hawkins (Sinclar Mitchell), who happens to be a fan of her work. Angie has the delightful act two opener “Zazz,” a Fosse-inspired number in which she encourages Emma to move forward with confidence. Borromeo gives the number the razzle dazzle (phrasing intended) it needs to succeed. Wetzel plays Barry as flamboyant and completely over-the-top, but makes it all ring true. His solo “Barry is Going to Prom” entertains and lends pathos to the character. Trent has my favorite solo number of the entire quartet—the spectacular “Love Thy Neighbor.” He meets some of Emma’s classmates and teaches them a thing or two about the real contents of the Bible and what acceptance really means. It’s a hilarious number, and Weber smashes it.
Thus, THE PROM simultaneously satirizes the trappings of celebrity and the theater life, while also delivering an earnest message of acceptance and an attack on homophobia. Delightfully, THE PROM mostly succeeds in intertwining these two distinct narratives and tones. Dee Dee, Barry, Trent, and Angie all have outsized, delectable musical numbers that exude pizzazz. Meanwhile, Emma and her girlfriend Alyssa Greene have sweet, straightforward songs. It’s a smart way to set up the contrast, even if it means that Emma and Alyssa—while lovely characters—are somewhat underdeveloped. And while we learn that Emma’s parents have kicked her out of the house, she’s fairly self-assured and well-adjusted all things considered. Her solo numbers “Just Breathe” and “Unruly Heart,” while ripe with opportunities for identification from audience members, aren’t rooted in much specificity. Likewise, Emma and Alyssa’s duet “Dance With You” has a purity of spirit, but again, doesn’t necessarily drill down into specifics. Alyssa’s titular solo is a sincere exploration of the pressure she feels to be perfect; while it’s a familiar theme, Kalyn West’s emotional delivery sells the emotional arc of the song. While Emma and Alyssa on the whole don’t have the most dynamic musical numbers, Kaden Kearney and West turn out lovely performances in the roles.
Casey Nicholaw directs and choreographs THE PROM, and it’s apparent. The ensemble dance numbers are joyful, big, and energizing, peppered with Nicholaw’s signature jumps and high kicks. As with some of his past work, Nicholaw also liberally employs here what I like to call “dancing with props.” Just as the teens in MEAN GIRLS tap danced with cafeteria trays, the dancers use props ranging from recorders to tambourines in THE PROM.
The production design for THE PROM is equally glitzy. Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman’s bright costumes have plenty of tongue-in-cheek touches and handle well the practical considerations of this dance-heavy show (if only I could have worn sequined sneakers to the prom!) Scott Pask’s scenic design has that squeaky clean sheen of modern musicals, but it elegantly conveys a wide array of locations.
While THE PROM is fun and heartfelt, there’s a few numbers that could easily be cut from the show. The promposal-focused “You Happened” doesn’t have sentiments that ring true for high school students; it’s too lovey dovey and doesn’t add to the narrative. Likewise, while I adored Mr. Hawkins’s solo “We Look to You,” about the joys of live theater, when I saw THE PROM film adaptation in 2020, the ballad feels slow and sludgy in the context of the stage show. Mitchell performs the song nicely, but it slows the pace in a show that for the most part moves along rapidly.
THE PROM’s combination of musical theater showmanship, insider satire, and overt heartfelt nature altogether sparks joy. If you’re missing musical theater comedy and want to just embrace the art form for all the fun it can bring, lace up your sequined sneakers and head to THE PROM.
The national tour of THE PROM plays Broadway In Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 West Randolph) through April 24, 2022. Tickets are $31-$82. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com.
Photo Credit: Deen van Meer
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com